Founding a home in Britain – The Mauritian Experience

The Mauritians who came during the 1960s-1970s went on to lead a better and more privileged life than their compatriots who remained in their homeland. It is said that the history of NHS is a history of migration

The health system in Britain or the National Health Service (NHS) as it came to be known later, faced a huge shortage of nurses since its creation in 1948. From 1949, the health and labour ministries launched recruitment campaigns that resulted in thousands of nurses coming over to Britain and being deployed in hospitals all over the country. The Caribbean was a primary source of nurses and they started to arrive in the UK as far back as 1948. Tens of thousands of nurses also came from Mauritius and other parts of the former British empire. To many people in the UK, Mauritius was hardly heard of. To some, they would have heard of Mauritius later as part of a brief news about the 1968 riots and its subsequent independence from British rule. The older generations would remember such references for adding Indian Ocean as part of the address. The British and any prospective visitors to the island referred to it as a small dot on the world map. The Mauritians who came during the 1960s-1970s went on to lead a better and more privileged life than their compatriots who remained in their homeland. It is said that the history of NHS is a history of migration.

The influx begins

Mauritians who came to do nursing started to arrive in Britain since the 1960s but the number hugely increased in the 1970s. The British government felt an obligation to recruit from its former colonies for obvious reasons. Hospital authorities reported a shortage of approximately 30,000 nurses and launched a massive recruitment campaign for nurses to work in the hospitals around the country. In the 1970s Mauritius also suffered from massive unemployment; graduates and many Higher School Leaving Certificate (HSC) holders had few or no jobs. Many left this beautiful island for economic reasons which also helped Mauritius.  Those who went for nursing studies also looked forward to coming back home on holidays after a few years. This also boosted the economy as many Mauritians sent money home and spent their imperial sterling in their homeland. Later on, many of them built a second home in Mauritius. As the numbers of Mauritian immigrants started to increase in Britain, there was a need for travel, Mauritian food and produce, culture and other trades. Travel agents businesses started to establish themselves around mostly London as more and more wanted to visit their homeland. As nursing students arrived in different hospitals, they were given accommodation in the Nurses Home or staff residence as it was also called. Every individual was given a lockable room. There was a minimal rent which was deducted from the monthly salary and with no bills to pay. To many, this was their first taste of freedom and having their own room was a great feeling. Many of these buildings were opulent from outside with tastefully decorated lounges and sitting rooms with black and white televisions. The Nurses Home had several rooms for quiet reading and leisurely watching a favourite television programme.

Life in the Nurses Homes

These Nurses Homes were managed by strict Home Wardens and male and female nurses lived in separate wings of the building in many cases. In some hospitals, Home Wardens used to knock at every door in the evening to check if one had any visitor. Visitors were not allowed to stay overnight. However, some Mauritians were quite adventurous and actually did have their girl-friend or other visitors who were often hidden inside a wardrobe or under the bed. Most of Nurses Homes were huge purpose-built and secure accommodations. There were long corridors which had about twenty numbered rooms on both sides of the corridors with shared bathrooms and toilets. From the late 1970s and 80s the strict rules were relaxed and some corridors had both males and females sharing the corridors in the Nurses Homes.

Some Nurses Home were very impressive buildings like this one

As they started to settle in their jobs and the Nurses Home, there was a need to cook food, do laundry and grocery shopping. Many nurses had never cooked before they came to UK, so it would be trial and error, from simple menus to very tasty dishes. The female nurses were already either trained or seemed to have had some experience in cooking skills from back home. Later on some male nurses also caught up in cooking. The Chinese Malaysians would prefer to cook noodles dishes, the African colleagues loved their fish, and Mauritians and Trinidadians loved their rice and curries. Most of the male Chinese Malaysians were good at coming up with something, in contrast to the Mauritian men. The white English or Irish would hardly cook and prefer to eat at the hospital cafeteria. Many of them also spent their evenings socialising and drinking in the hospital Social Clubs. Fewer Mauritians were regular visitors to the social clubs unless there was a party or special occasion. Most of the Mauritians were neither heavy drinkers nor smokers compared to the Europeans. Mauritian men preferred to gamble with cards, play carom and scrabble in the nurses’ home. Cultural diversity was celebrated at staff Christmas party and other events, when nurses prepared their national cuisine and wore traditional costumes. There was multicultural harmony despite challenges faced by nurses from abroad. The interracial harmony was more apparent in mental hospitals compared to general hospitals, which mostly staffed by white nurses. The mental hospital environment was more tolerant, and although nurses from distant shores appeared to have little in common with their patients, they felt secure in what looked like an international community.

Nurses from 8 countries on the staff of the hospital at a photo session to push for more nurses in the NHS in late 1960s

Nursing studies

The majority of Mauritians got admission for nurse training around London, including the home counties (Surrey, Middlesex, Essex, Hertfordshire and Kent). This covered an area many times bigger than Mauritius. Many also went to other hospitals around England, Wales and Scotland. Every psychiatric hospital had many Mauritians and other nationalities too – from Ghana, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Trinidad, Jamaica, St Lucia and Malaysia, to name a few. There were nurses from also from other parts of the world but not in such large numbers. They came from France, Switzerland, Australia, South Africa and Spain. If you visited a hospital you were certain to meet these nationalities who were at different stages of their nursing studies. These formed the bulk of the actual staff on the wards.

Nurse Training in 1970s (Long Grove Psychiatric Hospital): Mauritians and other foreign nationalities during a class practical with a Nurse Tutor. Courtesy of Bournehall Museum, Ewell, Surrey, UK

The Mauritians were traditionally hard-working and dedicated to complete their nursing courses. Many of them were doing Psychiatric Nursing, an area which faced an acute shortage. It was apparent that all the Charge Nurses (male ward managers) or Ward Sisters (female ward managers) were either English or Irish. This was a prejudice that existed for decades against many a deserving Mauritian who did not get promoted until much later when things started to change. Nurses were taught and trained in Schools of Nursing which were situated in the hospital ground. The Heads of the School of Nursing including senior staff in almost every hospital were White English. It would have been a rare occasion to see a Black or other ethnic minority in a managerial position. However, this did not bother the Mauritians or other nurses. It was the norm for that time but we were all loyal to the ward managers; much later this situation gradually improved for the better.

Nurses learning in the School of Nursing in class, 1972: A typical Nurse training class, taking notes at a lecture. They had to wear their uniforms and look smart

Apart from foreign nurses, the hospitals were also full of domestics (or ward orderlies) porters, drivers and cleaners from Europe, especially Spain, Italy, Portugal and Sicily. Many of them could not speak fluent English but they gradually got by. As they had many of their own community in and around the hospitals, they did not really bother to learn English to a higher level for reading and writing. The hospitals were like international communities of nurses, porters, and doctors, including those who came from India and some from Pakistan. The European staff also had an influence in bringing their culture, language diversity and variety of food and drinks to Britain. Fewer of the Mauritian recruits had taken up the General Nursing Training known as State Registered Nurse (SRN). However, a subtle racist attitude on the part of the recruiters made them channel many non-whites to the lower course, State Enrolled Nurse (SEN) for both Psychiatric and General Nursing, or what was known as Registered Nurses of the Mentally Subnormal (RNMS). This showed partly that the white English were unwilling to do these jobs. The majority of non-whites, including Mauritians were to be found in Psychiatry and Mentally Subnormal as it was known then. This shortage of manpower started since the Second World War when many men were still serving in the army abroad and allied services and many women took up these jobs. The other reason which still exists today is the result of much less interest in Psychiatric Nursing from the mainstream whites, and a lower salary compared to other professionals.

Integration into British society

The Mauritians were quite friendly and many had an open attitude on meeting people of other races, cultures and religions, thanks to their coming from a multicultural country. Many of them spoke in creole when they were amongst themselves. Many Sri Lankans also spoke either Tamil or Sinhalese when they met other Sri Lankans. Some of the Mauritian ladies were more shy at first and needed time in order to fully integrate. During special occasions or for social reasons, Mauritians used to cook and bring food to the ward and share amongst other staff. This was also true of the Malaysians (mostly Chinese) and Afro-Caribbeans. We all shared a good laugh and camaraderie and also learnt culture. It was our formative years as we left our countries as teenagers mostly. As the years passed by, some intermarriages between Mauritians and Irish, English, Trinidadians and Malaysians became part of the diversity. In keeping with tradition, many Mauritians went back 12, 000 miles away to get married and would bring back their new brides or groom. Others also brought relatives and friends back to UK, something which was relatively easier to do then. Since the nurse shortages continued, the international recruitment strategies resulted in attracting a new influx of overseas nurses who, like their predecessors, made a significant contribution to healthcare in England. By 1980s an increasing number of non-whites, including Mauritians were promoted to Charge Nurse/Ward Sister positions and a smaller number as Nursing Officers. Many also took up jobs as Nurse Tutors, to be rightfully promoted to Senior Tutors later. A former Nursing Student (1970s), Kishore Teelanah is currently Course Leader in Applied Science & Industry Placement Coordinator

* Published in print edition on 28 September 2018

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